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Book Review: The Hammers - The Story of Harvard's Underdog and Undefeated 1976 Crew, by Hovey Kemp
March 1, 2022
Peter Mallory

The 1976 Harvard varsity; Kemp is seated, middle

I recently started reading a new translation of The Iliad, a favorite of mine, an epic story of remarkable characters whose names have echoed down the millennia: Agamemnon, Odysseus, Priam, Paris, Patroclus, Hector, Achilles, fascinatingly flawed individuals displaying a range of all too human qualities: arrogance, anger, vanity, selfishness, cowardice. The Iliad is perhaps humankind's most enduring cautionary tale...

... but it is also filled with love and devotion, humility, humor, selflessness, strength and courage, filled with true heroes who exemplify the very best in us.

Do such personalities exist amongst rowers of our era? I suggest that they do. I have known more than my fair share and have called them my friends. Lucky me. That their lives have not played out before the walls of Ilium, that they did not have Homer to record their exploits, that they labored, often anonymously, in spindly shells on rivers and lakes and not war galleys on the wine-dark sea, still the best among us truly embody the same human virtues and frailties as Homer's heroes.

Among the most remarkable in my lifetime have been Joe Burk, Harry Parker, Allen Rosenberg, and Ted Nash. All were connected in history. All became larger than life to the point that now their legends have clouded our understanding and appreciation of the mortal men they actually were.

I came to know these men and found inspiration in my personal relationships with each of them... but one always remained a puzzle. I had the opportunity to interact on an intimate level with Joe and Allen toward the ends of their lives and with Ted when I least expected it... but never really with Harry. Oh, he was thoughtful and kind and incredibly generous with his time, but there was always a core that remained hidden from me.

Front cover
Front cover

You may think this is a strange way to begin a review of The Hammers, the wonderful retelling of the unique story of Harvard's 1976 Crew by Hovey Kemp, but I'm following my heart here.

I'm a Penn man through and through - I bleed Red and Blue - but I have always approached Newell Boathouse like a kid pressing his nose against a department store window during Christmas season, and over the years I have taken every opportunity to seek enlightenment into what makes Harvard... well... HARVARD.

I attended a Harvard-Yale race when I was a child and there was still a train following the races. I have clung for half a century to the memory of the one time in my life I crossed a finish line with a Crimson crew in my wake. I have come to know a whole range of Harvard men and women from the last seven decades, explored the nooks and crannies of the boathouse at Red Top, laughed with Al Shealy and Tiff Wood, reminisced with Steve Gladstone, and broken bread with Chuck Hewitt and Tony Brooks. I rowed for a summer out of Newell, rowed beside the '72 Olympic Crew across Europe in the weeks before Munich and even joined the '68 Olympic Crew on one of their reunion rows!

But always there was the enigma of Harry...

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" So said the Wizard of Oz. The Hammers invites you behind the curtain. Hovey lets you be part of a Harvard team at a time when no one was sure what their future might bring. Harry is flesh and blood, and the story is so much more interesting than anything I might have imagined as I pressed my nose against Newell's windows.

And the book exudes the ease and grace that Harvard rowers display in such abundance.

Thank you, Hovey.

Incidentally, Hovey tells me he still has a few copies left of the second printing. I heartily recommend you reach out to him immediately at jhoveykemp @ Tell him row2k and Hear the Boat Sing sent you.

Hovey Kemp
Hovey Kemp

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04/04/2022  7:13:40 PM
They were an unlikely crew, physically mismatched. Some had rowed before college. Some had not. Two of them were enormous(John Brock and George Aitken). Two of them were of more ordinary proportions (John White and Tom Howes). White was a former lightweight, in fact. The rest were just plain big. All of them were confident, tough, and well conditioned. They performed fearlessly. Ably stroked by Ollie Scholle, they had a lot to live up to, coming as they did just after the Rude and Smooth national championship crews of '74 and '75.

The Hammers traces the arc of Hovey Kemp's four year career at Harvard, beginning as a freshman walk-on, making the JV as a sophomore, the Varsity as a junior and again as a senior, when he captained the boat. Kemp explains, "A hammer is rowing slang for a rower who lacks finesse." It's a misnomer here, as the record clearly shows. Call it hyperbole, kind of like saying Baryshnikov has two left feet.

If the Rude & Smooth won by intimidation, the Hammers punished their opponents. It wasn't always pretty. There were crabs and rough water in the Basin. But they got it done. Perhaps they benefited from the Harvard mystique, but the converse was also true. With the graduation of six members of the '75 boat, they were thought of as vulnerable, the team everyone wanted to beat.

Filled with photographs and memorabilia, the book provides a nice look at the interpersonal dynamics of the '76 crew -- eight oarsmen, their coxswain and their coach. For instance, even though Parker is always seen as a man of few words, at one point we do see him giving coxswain Bruce Larson a very thorough and detailed race plan.

To anyone who may have rowed during this period, this book is a very interesting look behind the scenes at one of rowing's premier programs. If there was a special sauce, it is not revealed here. Harry was quite open about what went on at Newell Boathouse. The secret ingredient there was hard work, and lots of it. It was as if Harry said, "Here's what we do here -- catch us if you can."

Not as easily replicated, however, was the technical expertise possessed by Harry, Ted Washburn, Steve Gladstone, John Higginson & others. Two additional factors were the expectations set by the success of the crews that went before, and the fierce competition within the squad itself.

With all the buzz about The Boys in the Boat, I'm really surprised there aren't more books like this. It has something for everyone: lessons learned, golden memories brought back to life. Following his description of the 1976 Harvard-Yale race, Kemp devotes a small section to the topic of respect, as in: respect for your opponent; respect for your teammates; respect for your coach; respect for the sport itself.

The Hammers is a pleasure to read, perfect for a rainy Saturday afternoon. The rowing community would benefit greatly from seeing excerpts from it. Highly recommended.

Jim Foley St. Louis, MO

03/02/2022  1:01:42 PM
What a surprise to see Bruce Larson and John Brock on that crew. I'd graduated and finished my rowing career at Harvard by '76 and didn't realized they'd followed on. Bruce had been my coxswain in boarding school and John had just started rowing. Good read!

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03/01/2022  8:59:41 AM
Peter: Hammers is a great read for all rowers, but especially for those of us who, having watched, raced and interacted with the 70's Harvard oarsmen, are now getting long in the tooth. I read Hammers in one sitting and what struck me most is how young they were (and I was at the time) and what an affirming and life changing experience it was for them. Hovey brings out the personal rewards that go beyond the victories and photos on the wall. Whether you’re on a Giza pyramid or in a Waffle House with your teammates, rowing truly is a "Band of Brothers", and, of course, sisters. The toil, joy and pain only serve to reinforce the bond.

I never rowed for Harry in a camp, but as a new coach arriving to the coxswains meeting at the ’75 Crew Classic, the only place to stand was, no surprise, next to Harry. The meeting droned on until the director announced that some obscure rule that might affect racing was going to remain unenforced. Harry tilted his head my way and softly said, “Dangerous”. Enough said.

Over the years Harry remembered and greeted me as I advanced my career, and in one of my last years as a college head coach, we met on the bridge at Redwood Shores. Our crews were practicing and as mine came under the bridge, he simply said. “Nice crew.” Best compliment I’ve ever had as a coach.

The proverb states that even a fool seems wise when he keeps his lips shut. But what does a wise man become when he keeps his shut? I suppose that wise man becomes an icon.

Thanks, Hovey, for your gift to the rowing community.

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